Well before the anxiety and crisis atmosphere brought on by coronavirus took hold, there were already reasons for concern living in San Antonio. As a city, we are a paragon of inequality, ranking near the top in poverty among comparable metro areas and leading the nation in economic segregation. Much of this stark misery can be relieved with measures centering working people, raising the floor for everyone. Local policy like the paid sick leave ordinance connects the ongoing crisis of inequity with the specific crisis of how to best protect vulnerable communities from a pandemic.

The virus has provoked new introspection about the policy shortcomings present in our city. In order to control the spread of the illness, we’ve been advised to keep “social distance,” using isolation to bring coronavirus under control through containment. Paid sick leave, many (including Donald Trump) are realizing, is the exact mechanism missing to keep workers at home when sick. Without it, working people are compelled by month-to-month financial burdens to do the opposite, worsening society-wide risk.

Coronavirus shows us that we are truly only as safe as the least safe among us. If workers put themselves at risk because they need to pay the bills, they put others at risk. We measure justice in this community by how the most disadvantaged in a system are doing and making their betterment the standard of progress.The same is true, in a perverse way, with disease control and public health. You cannot be free of worry from a pandemic because sick workers cannot stay home without worry. It is the height of the floor and not the ceiling that determines both justice and public health outcomes. 

San Antonio represents a living and breathing tale of two cities. The Northside is one world, financially stable and riddled with gated communities. The South, East and West Sides represent another world, synonymous with economic hardship, aggressive gentrification, health disparities, and school closures. Distress about bills, housing, and debt are all commonplace and can even be distilled down to zip code. Measures to correct for this extreme divide should be concentrated on raising the floor for everyone. San Antonio would not have such high uninsured rates – disproportionately affecting low-income black and brown families in need of health care – if Texas accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage. 

For the past two years, that struggle to improve conditions in a city strained by its own inequality was taken on by Working Texans for Paid Sick Time, pushing for modest, but mandatory paid sick leave policies to cover all workers in the cities of San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas. MOVE Texas is working to bring the difficulties of young service workers not protected by such policies to the table. Too often, in each of these cities, we hear stories of young folks going into work sick because the budget for a month’s worth of groceries was on the line. 

We also know that 354,000 others in the city also working without guaranteed paid sick leave likely had similar “between a rock and a hard place” stories somewhere in their history. Despite the mandate of 144,000 San Antonians’ signatures demonstrating the urgent need and popularity of such a policy, we were fought locally and at the state level in coordinated attacks led by right-wing think tanks, restaurant associations, manufacturing associations, and temp agencies – folks more interested in profits than people. 

In its final iteration, edited and revised throughout the more than 75 meetings of San Antonio’s Paid Sick Leave Commission, our altered local paid sick leave ordinance featured a renewed emphasis on the public health benefits of paid sick leave in preventing the unnecessary spread of communicable illnesses. The policy’s name change to Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance reflected this understanding. Unfortunately, the fight to do what is right regarding paid sick leave is still in limbo in the courts and all of it took place before the coronavirus pandemic, the global pandemic now infecting over 100,000 people worldwide. In this new and urgent context, we must do all that we can to guarantee paid sick leave and our collective well being. The lawsuits preventing the policy’s enactment must be dropped. 

Paid sick leave is a fight that unites the pursuit of justice against inequality and indignity with the fight for responsible public health measures as one and the same. San Antonio needs paid sick leave now.

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Alex Birnel

Alex Birnel is a community organizer and advocacy manager at MOVE Texas, currently living in San Antonio.